It’s that time of year. All the big-name free agents have signed somewhere. Pitchers are pitching. Catchers are catching. It’s time to write about baseball in 2015.
As a prelude to my 2015 season preview, I thought I’d take a stab at ranking the game’s best players. Why? Well, for one, this is the kind of thing I think about when I’m falling asleep, when I’m in the shower, and when I’m driving to work. Second, projecting how well players will play this year establishes a framework for predicting how well teams will play. And finally, one question has been nagging at me since Max Scherzer signed the biggest deal of the offseason: By how much are the Nationals the best team in baseball? A couple games? A bunch of games? (Nats fans [and Mariners fans] might want to skip the next one.) By a crazy, 2001 Mariners-type margin?
I thought I’d tackle this question by building something like a homemade ZIPS framework. I took every player I expect to get regular playing time this year, excluding relievers, who likely won’t accumulate enough value to crack the top 100, and recorded his age and WAR (per fangraphs) for each of the last three seasons. I created a raw WAR (sweet palindrome, eh?) figure based on the formula (2014 WAR * 4 + 2013 WAR * 2 + 2012 WAR)/7, then adjusted based on the player’s age. Age adjustments are based on work I did for this post, which uses historical data to place players somewhere along an aging curve where, for instance, a 24-year-old gets a 15.6% raise on his raw WAR and a 34-year-old takes a 14.5% cut.
I then added a subjective adjustment between -1 and 1 WAR, which could come as the result of one of several cases. For instance, Manny Machado is still 22. In 2012, he broke into the league with 1.3 WAR. In 2013, he broke out with 6.3. Last year, he missed most of the season with an injury and settled for 2.5 WAR. The age adjustment boosts his raw 3.4 to a projected 4.1. If he’s healthy this year, I expect him to play like he did in 2013, but recognizing that I know more about some players than others, I’d rather let objective data drive this discussion than speculate blindly. I gave him a modest .8-WAR positive adjustment.
On the flip side, a player like Justin Verlander, who’s clearly regressing faster than the average 31-year-old (7.1, 5.2, and 3.3 WAR since ’12) benefits disproportionately from a framework that sees him bouncing back up to 4.1 WAR, so I docked him the full point. I’ll explain some of the subjective adjustments as I roll through the rankings.
My system is admittedly imperfect, as it sells short several types of players. Those who broke out last year after low-value prior seasons are still weighed down by prior years (in which many of them got very few PA or IP). Second-year players like Mookie Betts and Jorge Soler are projected only based on a partial season’s worth of value and a subjective adjustment. For that reason, my list is skewed toward players in their primes (sorry, Cubs).
Enough babble. Let’s rank these dudes.
First, some honorable mentions. This includes everyone projected at 3.1 wins, a tenth of a win behind #100, which is a virtual tie, and a few players between 2.5 and 3 who are notable for one reason or another.
Honorable mention pitchers included those on the rise, like Gerrit Cole, Drew Hutchison, and Michael Wacha, established stars like Hisashi Iwakuma, Alex Cobb, and Andrew Cashner, whom I could see finishing closer to 10th than 100th this year, and former aces like Justin Verlander and Cliff Lee.
Honorable mention position players also ranged from pre-prime- Danny Santana, AJ Pollock, Leonys Martin, Kevin Kiermaier, Mookie Betts, and George Springer- to post-prime- Joe Mauer, JJ Hardy, Adrian Gonzalez, Jose Reyes, Erick Aybar, and Brett Gardner- with guys like Yoenis Cespedes, Carlos Santana, Josh Reddick, and the intriguing Matt Wieters in between.
100. Billy Hamilton, SS, Reds – Last year’s most hyped NL rookie proved he could run like the Hall of Famer with the same name, but he’ll have to find ways to get on base and cut down on caught-stealings to add real value with his legs. Even if he repeats his rookie campaign with no improvement, he’s probably a top-100 player.
99. Jose Fernandez, P, Marlins
98. Matt Harvey, P, Mets – The race for second place in the NL East could hinge on how these two come back from Tommy John surgery. Harvey was perhaps the best pitcher in the game when he went down in late summer, 2013, but with less than one season’s work on his resume, my system doesn’t like him as much as I do. Like Harvey, Fernandez was one of the ten best pitchers in the game before his surgery. He’s not due back until June or July, but if his arm is ready, he should be valuable enough over 15-20 starts to crack the top 100. Harvey could be a top-20 guy.
97. Chris Davis, 1B, Orioles – I’m not sure it’s a shortcoming of my system that it doesn’t know how to deal with Davis. Does anyone? He finally broke out with 6.8 WAR (aided by 53 home runs) at age 26, only to regress to .5 WAR at 27 (the suspension for amphetamines didn’t help). He could easily be a top-25 guy again in 2015 or a guy looking for a job in 2016.
96. Doug Fister, P, Nationals
95. Gio Gonzalez, P, Nationals – Here we go with the Nats. These are the last two pitchers in their rotation, in some order. Tanner Roark only misses this list because I docked him a few tenths for likely pitching out of the bullpen for most of 2015. The other four teams in the NL East have a total of three pitchers ranked higher than the Nats’ fifth starter (though I expect big things from Harvey, if not Fernandez as well). Baseball isn’t fair.
94. Neil Walker, 2B, Pirates – Cutch gets all the attention, but the Pirates are sneaky good all over the field. If I believed in their pitching, I might pick them to win the Central.
93. Dallas Keuchel, P, Astros – Have the Astros arrived? They have two players in my top 100 (as many as the A’s, Rays, or Brewers), and three more in the next 50. Keuchel heads up a rotation that should be at least adequate this year.
92. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds – How quickly great players fade. Three years ago, while I was shaming ESPN for asserting that Albert Pujols was still the best player in the game despite obvious signs of decline, I still ranked Votto third. He played well in ’12 and ’13, but injuries kept him off the field for much of 2014 and he wasn’t a great player when he was healthy. I hope I regret ranking Votto this low, but a lot of great, slugging 29-year-old first basemen are not great players at 31. See Pujols, Albert.
91. Desmond Jennings, CF, Rays – Better than Votto? My systems thinks so because it loves his consistency. It hard to argue that a 28-year-old who was worth 3.2, 3.3, and 3.2 WAR the last three years won’t be worth something a little better than three wins this year.
90. Matt Holliday, LF, Cardinals – A consistent force, Holliday’s shown some signs of decline in recent years, but still offers plenty of value at 35. The Cardinals landed seven players on this list, more than any team besides the Nats.
89. Marcell Ozuna, CF, Marlins – Ichiro’s quest for 3,000 hits seems to be riding on the possibility that one of the Marlins’ outfielders gets injured, as all three are young and, if they can build on last season’s individual successes, among the 100 best players in the game.
88. Rick Porcello, P, Red Sox – Boston’s no-stars, no-scrubs approach will see Porcello leap from fringe fifth starter in Detroit to ace status in Boston in two years.
87. Jacob deGrom, P, Mets – I have no idea if deGrom is for real, but it was hard to keep last year’s NL Rookie of the Year off this list after a 3-WAR inaugural campaign.
86. Denard Span, CF, Nationals – The one Nat whose presence in the top 100 surprised me. I knew Span could run, and that he uses the bunt about as well as anyone in the league, but he’s actually a good all-around player, with a .355 OBP last year and excellent defensive numbers in his past.
85. Edwin Encarnacion, 1B, Blue Jays – Huge bat, not much else. When the bat speed goes, it’s going to get ugly quickly for E5. Here’s guessing the Jays get at least one more year of mashing.
84. Justin Upton, LF, Padres – I’m not sure what to do with the packed San Diego outfield, but Upton seems a safe bet for an everyday job. Can he launch balls out of Petco? If the Pads are serious about contending, he better be able to.
83. Jayson Werth, RF, Nationals – Ho hum, just another National among the top seven or eight guys at his position.
82. Hanley Ramirez, LF, Red Sox – I can see Ramirez struggling defensively with the Green Monster and American League pitching and beginning his descent into mediocrity. I can also see him freed from the demands of the shortstop position, taking aim at that same monster with his bat, and beginning a career renaissance.
81. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Rockies – As damaging as pitching at Coors can be, I’d love to be a Rockies pitcher who only pitches on the road and gets Arenado, Troy Tulowitzki, and D.J. LeMahieu behind him every night. Nolan can hit a little too, and at 23, he may be on his way to superstardom.
80. Julio Teheran, P, Braves – An ace in the making, on a team that won’t get him many wins this year, even if he does achieve a career-high WAR, as I predict he will.
79. Zack Greinke, P, Dodgers – At just 31, Greinke’s been a head case, a runaway Cy Young winner, a FIP-beater, and a disappointment. In 2015, I’m guessing he’s just an excellent starter on an excellent team.
78. Howie Kendrick, 2B, Dodgers – I’m as surprised as you are. Kendrick was worth 4.6 WAR last year, and moves to the weakest division in the big leagues.
77. Jake Arrieta, P, Cubs – After struggling in Baltimore, Arrieta was a surprise breakout star in Chicago last year. He’s still only 28, and may be entering his prime on a team that’s almost ready to contend.
76. Brian Dozier, 2B, Twins – The AL’s worst team actually lands two players on this list and two honorable mentions. Dozier, who broke out in a big way in 2014, may be the list’s biggest surprise.
75. Hyun-Jin Ryu, P, Dodgers – I’m not sure I believe Ryu is the second-best pitcher on the Dodgers, but with Brandon McCarthy in the fold, I do believe they have the second-best rotation in the National League.
74. Jeff Samardzija, P, White Sox – The White Sox might not be much better than Shark’s Cubs were last year, but he’s bound to get a win before the All-Star break this time around if he pitches well at all.
73. Lance Lynn, P, Cardinals – Is Lynn a breakout candidate, or has he already broken out? Either way, he’s sandwiched between Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha in another solid Cardinals rotation.
72. Andrelton Simmons, SS, Braves – I’m of the belief that Simmons doesn’t have to hit at all to be among the game’s best shortstops, as his glove is once-in-a-generation. He didn’t hit much in 2014, but he’s hinted at the presence of a bat, and if he can find even a decent one, he’s Ozzie Smith.
71. James Shields, P, Padres – Shields has lived in the space between serviceable pitcher and ace for several years, and his struggles in the 2014 playoffs didn’t help move him toward acedom, but pitching half his games at Petco might make him feel like one.
70. Ian Kinsler, 2B, Tigers – After looking a bit washed up toward the end of his Texas tenure, Kinsler rebounded with a 5.4-WAR season in 2014. Don’t expect another at age 32, but he’s still a very good player.
69. Josh Harrison, 3B/RF, Pirates – His positional versatility may be overrated, but Harrison can reach base, steal a base, and turn batted balls into outs. He’s immensely valuable at either position.
68. Devin Mesoraco, C, Reds – I’m not in the business of predicting breakouts, but he’s a breakout prediction: Mesoraco hits 30 homers and emerges as the Reds’ best player in 2015.
67. Johnny Cueto, P, Reds – Of course, there’s always this guy, who might have contended for the Cy Young in the non-Kershaw league last year. Fangraphs doesn’t love his low-strikeout version of run prevention, but he’s done it consistently for years now.
66. Christian Yelich, LF, Marlins – Another exciting young outfielder working in Miami. If they’re not a contender this year, expect the Marlins to be in the Wild Card chase by ’16.
65. Yadier Molina, C, Cardinals – Among the game’s best and most popular players in 2012 and ’13, Molina took a step back last year, always a concern for a catcher, whose body takes about six three-hour beatings a week. Could he be finished as a top-100 guy?
64. David Wright, 3B, Mets – In this exercise before the 2012 season, I left Wright out of my top 100, citing an apparent early decline. Naturally, he bounced back with two of the best seasons of his career. At 32, I don’t see another 7-win year, but he should be top 100 if he’s healthy.
63. Salvador Perez, C, Royals – Last year, Perez looked like the best all-around catcher in the AL for much of the season, then looked completely washed up by late October, when he popped out to end the World Series. A winter off and a more reasonable workload in 2015 should restore him to the star he’s become.
62. Yordano Ventura, P, Royals – James Shields skipping town puts the Royals’ next true ace in position to make an opening-day start.
61. Sonny Gray, P, A’s – Feels like he should be higher than this, doesn’t it? He’s put up sunny raw numbers- 2.99 ERA, 3.29 FIP- but park adjustments cast a gray cloud over them (just 4.8 WAR in 283 big-league innings). He’s still only 25, and should be a force of nature for years to come.
60. Marcus Stroman, P, Blue Jays – Stroman was about the 300th guy I thought of when I built this list. I had no idea he was worth 3.3 WAR in just 130 innings in a hybrid role last year (his 2.84 FIP helped). At 23, he may already be the Jays’ best starter.
59. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF, Yankees – He’ll never recreate his 2011 season, but I predict a bit of a bounceback for Jacoby as he adjusts to his new surroundings in 2015.
58. Garrett Richards, P, Angels – With a full season of domination on his resume, my system would have liked Richards even more. The Angels would love to see him hold up through the playoffs this year.
57. Cole Hamels, P, Phillies – At 31, playing for perhaps the worst team in baseball, will Hamels show signs of decline this year? If so, he’ll be coming down from quite a peak.
56. Anibal Sanchez, P, Tigers – He might have been the best pitcher in the AL in 2013 before missing time with injuries in ’14. After letting one ace go, dealing a budding ace, and watching a third deteriorate, the Tigers could use a return to excellence from Sanchez.
55. Juan Lagares, CF, Mets – It seems that each year, someone new- Franklin Gutierrez, Peter Bourjos, and Jackie Bradley come to mind- emerges as the best defensive outfielder in the game, only to struggle with the bat and fade from view. Here’s guessing that Lagares hits enough to cement that reputation.
54. Russell Martin, C, Blue Jays – The key to the Blue Jays resurgence? Most recent World Series champs have had a superstar catcher- Posey, Molina, Posada… The Jays have built great rosters in recent years, but haven’t had a backstop like Martin.
53. Jhonny Peralta, SS, Cardinals – “Sic” was sick with the glove in ’14, and while he may not be worth 5.4 WAR again this year, he won’t need to be to be among the game’s top five shortstops.
52. Bryce Harper, LF, Nationals – The only player in the top 100 I gave the full 1-point subjective bonus. It feels like he hasn’t broken out yet, but he’s been one of the greatest 21-and-under players in baseball history. Here’s guessing he takes it to another level at 22 and this ranking looks like an insult.
51. Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros – I doubt he’ll hit .341 or steal 56 bases again, but even .300 and 40, with doubles power and average second-base defense, should be good for 3-to-4 wins.
50. Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays – The last time I ranked the 100 best players in the game, he was number one. I need to do this more often.
49. Todd Frazier, 3B, Reds – Frazier is quietly emerging as of the NL’s best hitters, and his fielding and baserunning numbers have been good as well.
48. Yan Gomes, C, Indians – WAR tends to underrate catchers, so the best catcher in the American League would probably be a little higher on a list with more subjective input.
47. Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Red Sox – As a Sox fan, I have a bad feeling about the second half of Pedroia’s career, as I’m afraid his play-through-everything attitude will catch up to him soon. I suppose I should sit back and enjoy the best player on the team while he’s still a star.
46. Masahiro Tanaka, P, Yankees – He looked like a Cy Young contender until he got hurt last year. There may not be a better pitcher in the AL East.
45. Starling Marte, LF, Pirates – Like the Marlins, the Pirates put three outfielders in this top 100. Gregory Polanco is closer to making it four for Pittsburgh than Ichiro is for Miami.
44. Chase Headley, 3B, Yankees – Headley signed for just over half of what Pablo Sandoval, who missed this list by 23 spots, got from the Red Sox. October chances are worth a few bucks if you take advantage.
43. Hunter Pence, RF, Giants – Easily the gangliest, least baseballplayerlike player on the list. He’s this good though.
42. Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays – Like me, Bautista’s 34. Only one older player finished higher on the list.
41. Lorenzo Cain, CF, Royals – Can he continue his October breakout through the full regular season?
40. Adam Wainwright, P, Cardinals – He’s been the best non-Kershaw pitcher in the NL for most of Kershaw’s career. At 33, he’s probably on the decline, but there’s no reason to believe he’ll be bad in 2015.
39. Matt Carpenter, 3B, Cardinals – At 27, he blossomed into a superstar overnight. At 28, he was more good-not-great until the NLDS. Who knows what he’ll do at 29?
38. Ian Desmond, SS, Nationals – Did you know Desmond had been worth 14 WAR over the past three seasons, almost three more wins than any other shortstop over that span?
37. Phil Hughes, P, Twins – In 2015, he stopped walking batters and became a Cy Young candidate. He wouldn’t have to be quite as good in ’15 to justify this ranking.
36. Jordan Zimmermann, P, Nationals – There are only 11 pitchers left on the list. We’re in the middle of the Nationals’ rotation.
35. Madison Bumgarner, P, Giants – If an underwhelming Giants team just won the World Series on the back of one pitcher, how is he just the 35th best player in the game? Baseball’s just that unpredictable. It actually took a strong subjective bonus (.6 points) to get Bumgarner this high, as park adjustments knock his numbers back to Earth. He’s just 25, though, and has proven he can handle tougher higher-leverage assignments than anything he’ll see in the regular season.
34. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves – Just one skill, but it’s a good one. Those homers might not drive in many runs in that Atlanta lineup this year, though.
33. Adam Jones, CF, Orioles – He’s overrated by Gold Glove voters, but he’s undeniably one of the best players on a team that keeps surprising us.
32. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Rangers – The oldest player on this list (35), one of the six greatest third basemen of all time, and an ageless marvel we’re all blessed to have seen play.
31. Jon Lester, P, Cubs – Lester’s arrival in Chicago has elicited much hyperbole. The Cubs aren’t contenders yet. They’ve got one of the 10 or 15 best pitchers in the game, but when Bryant, Soler, and Baez are scoring runs in droves, he’ll be in his mid-thirties, hoping for another chance at October glory.
30. Jose Quintana, P, White Sox – Samardzija and Sale will get all the ink in Chicago this year, but the Pale Hose have another starter who had a 2.81 FIP last year. If he can keep home runs down in 2015 like he did in ’14, he’s the #2 starter in what might be the AL’s best rotation.
29. Stephen Strasburg, P, Nationals – Like Harper, it doesn’t really feel like Strasburg has “arrived”, but he’s been one of the game’s best pitchers over the last three years and could finally be Cy Young-worthy in 2015.
28. Yu Darvish, P, Rangers – Last season’s injury sidetracked what looked like it might be Darvish’s first Cy Young season. If he’s healthy, he’ll strike batters out like no one else in the AL.
27. Manny Machado, 3B, Orioles – There’s no ceiling to Machado’s talent. He’s 22, he’s already had a 6-win season, he should keep growing as a hitter, and he’s capable of playing shortstop.
26. Kyle Seager, 3B, Mariners – Another quietly budding superstar, Seager can pop a homer (25 last year), draw a walk (52), and pick it at the hot corner (12.9 fielding runs above average).
25. Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs – At 25, Rizzo is the elder statesman in the Cubs lineup, fully formed and ready to guide the young bats toward October.
24. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies – One of the great tragedies of modern baseball is that perhaps its second most talented player has only played as many as 130 games once since 2010. If he’s healthy, he’s the MVP frontrunner.
23. Alex Gordon, LF, Royals – His WAR depends a little heavily on defense for some fans’ tastes, but he hits, he runs the bases, and he’s reinventing the limits of left field defense. Now he’s even doing it for a playoff team.
22. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks – Enough of these jacks-of-all-trades. Golschmidt is a slugger in the classic model, and he should be healthy and ready to terrorize the National League again in 2015.
21. Ben Zobrist, 2B/Util, A’s – The A’s traded away most of their talent this offseason, only to reel in a utility man in late winter who will immediately be their best player.
20. Jonathan Lucroy, C, Brewers – I thought Lucroy was the most valuable player in the NL last season. It’s hard to imagine him being as good again, but this ranking doesn’t presume that he will be.
19. Jose Abreu, DH, White Sox – Adam LaRoche’s arrival moves Abreu to DH this year, stripping a small portion of his value, but there’s no reason to believe the AL’s best hitter in ’14 won’t rake again in his second full year in the bigs.
18. Michael Brantley, LF, Indians – Was his 2014 breakout for real? He’s no Mike Trout, but he’s within a few ticks of Trout’s ability in every facet of the game.
17. Robinson Cano, 2B, Mariners – After Trout and Cabrera, Cano has been the most valuable player in the AL over the last three seasons. At 32, he looks like he may have a few more great years left.
16. David Price, P, Tigers – Price will be under some pressure to replace several other aces as the team transitions from knowing the AL Central is theirs and focusing on the playoffs to striving to win a tough division.
15. Jason Heyward, RF, Cardinals – There’s no replacing the promise that was Oscar Taveras in St. Louis, but the Cards went out and got one of the game’s best defensive outfielders and a guy with the potential to be an elite bat as well.
14. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers – He’s obviously in decline, but Cabrera should still be one of the league’s best hitters once he’s fully healthy again.
13. Yasiel Puig, RF, Dodgers – If he can avoid moments of disconnection from the game, like most of last September, Puig could win his first of multiple MVPs in 2015.
12. Max Scherzer, P, Nationals – All the drama in Washington’s regular season should revolve around Matt Williams. Will he start Scherzer, Strasburg, or Zimmermann on opening day? Will he keep punishing Harper for not running into walls? Will he give way to a competent manager before the postseason?
11. Carlos Gomez, CF, Brewers – Is Gomez the best athlete in MLB? He steals bases (111 the last three years), crushes baseballs (66 homers), and tracks down fly balls hit anywhere (40.6 fielding runs above average).
10. Anthony Rendon, 3B, Nationals – There you have it. Ten of the 100 best players in baseball right now play in Washington. Who would have guessed Rendon would be a top-ten guy before Harper would?
9. Corey Kluber, P, Indians – Perhaps if Kluber hadn’t gotten his due as AL Cy Young in 2014, he’d be hungrier in ’15. Regardless, he should pitch meaningful games in August and September this year, headlining a strong, young rotation that could lead the Tribe to the postseason.
8. Josh Donaldson, 3B, Blue Jays – Donaldson came out of nowhere, and Billy Beane’s willingness to trade him for what looked like less makes me wonder if he’s primed to fade back into obscurity, but the numbers say he’s the best infielder in the game, and these projections are all about the numbers.
7. Chris Sale, P, White Sox – Even if his skinny body leads him to the Pedro Martinez ending, Sale is already maybe the best pitcher in the AL and still on the rise at age 25.
6. Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Marlins – If he comes back strong after getting hit in the face with a pitch last fall, Stanton should pick up where he left off, whacking 40 homers and playing solid defense in right field.
5. Felix Hernandez, P, Mariners – Will this be another year in which fans think Hernandez deserves the Cy Young but he doesn’t win it, or another year in which he wins it, but fans think someone else should have won?
4. Buster Posey, C, Giants – When future generations look back and wonder how the Giants won three World Series in five years, pitching will probably be the first answer, but Posey will be the lone superstar who played for San Francisco throughout.
3. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates – McCutchen is not only the game’s premier spokesman right now, he’s also one of its most consistently great players, playing at an MVP level each of the last three seasons.
2. Clayton Kershaw, P, Dodgers – The Mike Trout of pitching. He’s the best and no one else is particularly close.
1. Mike Trout, CF, Angels – Trout seems to have been downgraded from “Willie Mays wishes he could have had the career Trout’s about to have” to “hopefully Al Kaline, maybe even Mickey Mantle”. Still, even after bulking up and losing some of his defensive edge and developing a bit of a strikeout problem, Trout is the best player in the game by so much that I docked him .7 points in the subjective adjustment and he still topped Kershaw’s projection by 2.5 wins.
There you have it. It would appear that there’s quite a gap between the Nats and the field. I’ll address that further in my next post. For now, tell me why I’m a fool for ranking somebody somewhere.